By the time that Finish Line: A Documentary Play About the 2013 Boston Marathon makes its world premiere at the Shubert Theatre this week, it will have been about two and half years since this little project turned major event began.
While this big and shiny finished product is an unprecedented collaboration between the tiny, relatively new Boston Theater Company and the mighty Boch Center (which operates the Shubert), it didn’t start out that way.
The story of how Finish Line came to be is, in itself, a pretty remarkable one. Joey Frangieh, founder and artistic director of Boston Theater Company, found himself inspired by the firsthand accounts that emerged in the weeks following the bombing. He was moved by one article in particular, and a few weeks later when he attempted to find the article online, he was overloaded with articles about the terrorists.
“That started to really bother me,” Frangieh said. “It’s like, why does fear have such an impact on us? Why don’t we focus on the heroes? We heard about so many ordinary people who did extraordinary things. Maybe we can use art and theater to explore what happens when we focus on the good.”
Frangieh got in touch with co-creator Lisa Rafferty (who serves on the Board of Directors for Boston Theater Company) and discovered that she, too, had ideas of somehow telling these stories on stage. They decided that it would be documentary style, using the exact words of those that were there, and quickly put together a team.
The manpower alone behind Finish Line is staggering. A team of 35 conducted interviews with 95 people, which were then hand-transcribed by a group of 22. Hundreds of hours of audio recordings became thousands of pages of script, which Frangieh and Rafferty then had to edit and somehow shape into something coherent.
This editing process was, by far, the most complicated aspect of Finish Line’s creation. Surprisingly, finding the arc of the play proved much easier.
“We let the interviews dictate the plot,” he said. “We didn’t preplan what the plot would be. The only thing we knew is that we wanted to not focus on the terrorists.” (The terrorists and the ensuing trial are nowhere to be found in Finish Line.) “In terms of the themes that arose, we really let that organically come through.”
It took years for them to finalize the script. “I wanted so badly to make a 14-hour play, but I knew that no one would come,” joked Frangieh. He leaned heavily on Rafferty and the rest of the team, and it would take multiple readings, seven workshops, and a string of preview performances, which were held last April in a 50-seat conference room at the NonProfit Center downtown.
Those preview performances, in fact, were originally going to act as Finish Line’s world premiere. A few months before, though, Frangieh got a call from Joe Spaulding, president and CEO of the Boch Center. That phone call would impact the trajectory of Finish Line in a major way.
“A year and a half ago, I read in the Boston Globe an AP story—not a story written by a Globe reporter, an AP story—and it had three words that I, in my career, have never seen before,” said Spaulding. “And they were: a documentary theatrical experience. I thought, ‘Wow. That’s a really cool idea.’”
Spaulding was gripped by the article, which mentioned Frangieh and Rafferty’s intentions to omit the bombers and focus instead on the resilience, recovery, and love. “The human spirit in tragedy can, in fact, bring out the best in all of us,” said Spaulding. “I thought to myself, ‘That is really great.’”
Spaulding has long seen the value in artistic collaborations between large organizations, like Boch Center, and young, up-and-coming theater companies, like Boston Theater Company. After some Googling, he got Frangieh on the phone and offered his help. Spaulding asked Frangieh (who he calls one of the most articulate young people that he’s ever met) to put together a few actors so that they could read the play for him and his team over lunch.
“So he did,” said Spaulding. “And nobody ate. Nobody even opened their sandwich because it was going to make noise. They read this thing, and it was just dead silence. Everybody just sort of looked at each other, and I said, ‘We’re in.’”
With Boch Center’s involvement also came support from Highland Street Foundation, Cummings Foundation, and the Boston Foundation.
The invitation came to mount Finish Line at the Shubert, which would act as the official world premiere. It wasn’t an invitation that Frangieh had to give much thought. “I was like, ‘Oh, we’ll go up from a 50-seat conference room to 1,100 seats a night,” recalls Frangieh. “That’s fine with us.” (At 26, Frangieh will become the youngest person ever to direct on the Shubert stage.)
It was important to Frangieh and his team that Finish Line should be brought to life using homegrown Boston talent, and the cast features some of Boston’s finest actors, including Karen MacDonald, Paula Plum, Ed Hoopman, Greg Maraio, Omar Robinson, and Lewis D. Wheeler. Amie Lytle, who plays survivor Erika Brannock, has been with Finish Line since the very beginning.
Unsurprisingly, it is working with MacDonald and Plum, two grand dames of the Boston stage, that is a unique kind of thrill for Frangieh. “They’re a powerhouse,” he said. “I’m biased, obviously, because I cast them, but I’m 26 years old and I’ve been watching them for years. They’re legends, and I’m so humbled that they’re part of this story.”
“We had never dreamed that it would go this big,” said Frangieh. “Our goal has been always to share the story of these really brave people, to really just celebrate the heroes of that day and to reinforce the themes of love over evil and love being more powerful than hate.”
It is those triumphant messages of love and community—along with the passion and hard work of hundreds of people—that have carried Finish Line to this point. Spaulding and his board deemed this project too important to pass up, knowing full well that they would see no financial return on their investment but that they would, instead, be doing Boston an innumerable service.
Is the Shubert the actual finish line for Finish Line? It’s too early to tell, but for the very first time Spaulding plans on storing the set after the closing performance. “I would say that it’s the first time in my career that I have absolutely no idea what happens on the day we close,” said Spaulding. “We will all get a chance to say, ‘God, did we pull it off or didn’t we? Were they throwing tomatoes or did we really get this story out there?’ Perhaps it gets mounted somewhere else. The subject matter is the 2013 marathon, but the real substance? It could be anywhere.”
FINISH LINE. 3.15–3.26 AT THE SHUBERT THEATRE, 265 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. BOCHCENTER.ORG